§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE EARL OF KINNOULL
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I do not think this Bill has quite the contentious spirit of the Bill we have just passed, but I believe that the principle of justice involved in it is similar. This Bill is a very small but important one, and it sets out to amend the present scope and duties of the Transport Users' Consultative Committees under Section 56 of the 1962 Transport Act. I feel that I should say at the outset that I cannot myself claim the credit for 178 this Bill, but, as it deals with a subject in which I am deeply interested, I naturally feel it a great honour to be entrusted to steer it past any political rocks in your Lordships' House and I sincerely hope it will not founder. The House may be interested to know at this stage that the Bill has the support of over 200 local authorities who have, I am told, forwarded resolutions to the Minister on this matter. It also has the support of a great number of individual persons and societies interested in transport.
In introducing the Second Reading debate, I should like, first, to explain the present powers and duties of the Transport Users' Consultative Committees, with particular reference to the effect of this Bill; secondly, to demonstrate to—and, I hope, convince—your Lordships that there is increasing public distrust over the conduct of the hearings before the Committees at present; and, lastly, to ask the House to give its approval to 179 this Bill which is solely designed to restore confidence in the hearings and to create the feeling not only that justice is done but that it is seen to be done.
The Transport Users' Consultative Committees were originally set up under the 1947 Transport Act and became, as the name much implies, the watchdog of the public, safeguarding their interests in the services and facilities provided by the British Transport Commission. The Committees were given statutory powers to consider a wide variety of subjects from rail-fare increases to passenger service withdrawals. Six Area Committees and one Central Committee were appointed by the Minister, each member of which was carefully selected so as to offer a wide variety of views on behalf of the users. Any complaints as to rail services were considered first by the Area Committees, which would report their findings to the Central Committee. The Central Committee would then consider the case and, if it felt it was a good one, would make recommendations to the Minister, who then had the duty to decide whether to accept the recommendations or to reject them.
The duties and procedures of these Committees were considerably reduced and altered in scope by the 1962 Transport Act. No longer were they to consider public complaints of rail-fare increases; their duties were watered down, in effect, to listening to grievances of the quality of the services provided by the new Railways Board which superseded the British Transport Commission. One important change of procedure, in fact, did take place under this Act: it was that the Area Committees were now to report direct to the Minister where rail closure proposals were heard and where there were hearings of objections against them.
But the fault, I would suggest, of the 1962 Act was that it narrowed down the functions and scope of these Area Committees to consideration of specific aspects only. They were to consider first the hardship aspects, the hardship that would be suffered by those users of the lines it was proposed to close; and they were to consider secondly whether alternative services should be required in the event of the line being closed, and to make recommendations on these 180 alternative services. I may add here that the term "hardship" was not defined, so far as I know, in the Act and there is still confusion as to its definition. The procedure at these hearings before the Committee is always, of course, the prerogative of the chairman. It is not the procedure itself over which the supporters of this Bill are in dispute; it is the power and scope of these Committees and the hearings that lead them to feel that the procedure is so inequitable.
The hearings are conducted in an informal atmosphere. Any user, or body of users such as a local authority, so long as written objections have been lodged within the prescribed time of seven weeks from the first advertisement by the Railways Board, has the right to be heard; and in fact it is the proud boast of the Committees that evidence was recently taken by one of the regular users of the Pitlochry line whose age did not exceed nine years. But before the hearing is held the secretary of the Committee normally sends out to all objectors a copy of the Railways Board's case for closure. This is known as "Heads of Information". The evidence of the Board usually includes the estimated revenue and the estimated cost of running the line, a recent census of the users of the line, and a list of existing alternative services, and possibly a list of proposed alternative services. Any objector who feels strongly that the removal of the railway service would have a detrimental effect on the area in which he is living and on himself personally will, naturally, study the Railways Board's case with the greatest care; and with his special knowledge of the area no doubt will find much of the information highly questionable. He may possibly comfort himself with the thought that at least at the hearing he can cross-examine the representatives of the Railways Board and prove to the Committee that at least some of the evidence is misleading.
Imagine, therefore, my Lords, the surprise and astonishment of objectors who find that accompanying the Railways Board's case there will usually be a note from the secretary of the Committee to say that at the hearing the only admissible evidence is to be narrowed down to the two aspects of hardship and alternative services. The objector will therefore have no chance to 181 cross-examine the Railways Board's case, which depends largely on the financial aspect. It is not surprising, my Lords, to find that the reputation of these hearings has sunk so low, because of this aspect, that they are now considered by many people to be purely farcical. I would add that a number of Committee members themselves appear to be unhappy as to the existing procedure. For the objector finds himself attending a hearing, but unable to put over his case in the best possible light; bursting with indignation at the case put by the Railways Board, but bound hand and foot and prevented from making any indication of his dissent.
The question that immediately arises when considering this extraordinary state of affairs is, why on earth are objectors barred from cross-examining the Railways Board's case when it has been considered right in the first instance that they should see the case prior to the hearing? Many people consider the effect of this is seriously to prejudice the whole proposal before it even reaches the Minister. The official reason why financial evidence is introduced at the hearings at all is that it provides a guide for the committees when they consider the alternative services and the cost of those services. It would seem, therefore, that this information should he extremely accurate and as full as possible. But there is the further disturbing fact that the financial case presented by the Railways Boards at this stage is extremely sketchy and has often proved at a later date to be inaccurate. It has been proved that ultimately, when figures are sent to the Minister, they vary from the figures produced at the hearing. I have been given evidence that disgruntled objectors, including local authorities, have come away from hearing after hearing knowing full well that the financial evidence given would not stand the test of cross-examination. Yet the committee accepted it.
My Lords, I hope that I have expressed myself clearly enough to demonstrate how urgent is the case for the reform of these hearings. I submit that it is an important issue of principle, and great harm would be clone were it held over to be incorporated later in a new Transport Act. It is also an issue of principle which members of this Government supported when in Opposition. So I move the 182 Second Reading of this Bill with confidence that, on the one hand, the Government and members of the Government surely must give their blessing and support to it, and, on the other hand, that it will relieve them from bringing in similar legislation themselves. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Kinnoull.)
§ 5.26 p.m.
LORD ST. OSWALD
My Lords, logically in presenting this Bill my noble friend should be able to expect support from certain noble and formidable Lords sitting opposite. Their speeches when sitting on these Benches, not all that long time ago, were in line with what my noble friend has been putting forward to-day, though frequently delivered in more extreme language than his own gentle and persuasive style. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, for instance, at one time or another struck doughty blows for the preservation of the Porthcawl line, the Haltwhistle and Alton line, the Taunton/ Barnstable and Taunton/Yeovil lines, the Newquay/Perranporth line, the Sheffield/Chinley line and the Isle of Wight Railway—all on separate occasions.
In a passionate speech on June 19, 1963, the noble Lord thought that the system proposed, and now in being, was "as unsatisfactory and undemocratic as the procedure of the Star Chamber." In the course of various speeches he went even further than my noble friend in wanting a properly constituted public inquiry on each proposal, believing that the transport users consultative committees were not enough. On July 30 of that same year he wished for the County Councils' Association, the Rural District Councils' Association and the National Association of Parish Councils all to be consulted. However, I cannot truly or justifiably encourage my noble friend in the event to expect such logical support from the Benches opposite, because there is nothing very logical or consistent about the policies of present Ministers. They have come to terms with the ci-devantStar Chamber, and I do not think that he will shake them loose from the procedures which they inherited from us.
Nor, I am afraid, has my noble friend shaken me loose from my conviction that these procedures were sensible and just; although in citing 200 complaining letters 183 from local authorities written to the Minister he has certainly given the Government something which they must answer; and I shall listen very carefully, as I always do to the Minister who replies, before deciding to what extent I can agree, or disagree, with him that, when applied, these procedures have proved inadequate, unjust or unsatisfactory.
My Lords, it could, of course, be that safeguards applied under a benign Conservative Administration would have worked more kindly and effectively than under Socialist bureaucracy, with its well-known propensity for pushing the citizen around and treating his every complaint as an impertinence. Emphatically what my noble friend has said will require the noble Lord, Lord Champion, to be on his toes, as well as on his feet, to-day to provide a convincing as well as a humane and well-meaning answer to the complaints and anxieties which my noble friend has described.
Whatever substance there may be in what my noble friend describes as increasing public distrust in the present machinery, the noble Lord, Lord Champion, must rebut these sincerely stated strictures with some concrete evidence in contradiction. If he does so, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Champion, will probably neutralise me on this issue. I say this because what my noble friend proposes would seem to me to delay the really necessary rail closures for a needless period, with a consequent delay in the modernisation of Britain and a consequent waste of money. It appals me to think that the present Government should be enabled in any way to delay the modernisation of Britain any more than they are doing at present, or to waste even more money than they are doing now.
In reading the record of the Second Reading of my noble friend's previous Bill, a wry thought occurred to me on a passage of the winding-up speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, when the noble Lord said:Even a Labour Government cannot use £120 million twice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 266, col. 994; 27/5/65.]Had this been a misprint and had the noble Lord in fact said:Even a Labour Government cannot lose £120 million twice184 there would have been plenty of noble Lords to expostulate at such a claim.
Although, as I have said, I am not yet convinced that what my noble friend proposes is either necessary or wise, it is none the less true that he has done a service to the House in raising the whole question. In the context of the manner in which procedures which he criticises are now working, the Government are called upon by this debate to give some information. I should like myself to know one or two things. It is a little over a year since my noble friend did us this service in 1965 and the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, on that occasion gave us some helpful information, which is now out of date in the natural course of events, and he was expecting other information, which must now be available.
He spoke, for instance, of a simple survey about to be made to test the effect on travellers of rail passenger closures. The survey, he told us, was to begin two days later—that is to say, on May 29 of last year. It would consist of interviewing passengers using trains on three different services then scheduled for closure and, a month or two after the closures, interviewing the same passengers a second time, to find out what alternative transport they had adopted and how their journeys compared with those they were making by train before the closures took place. The object of this very proper survey was to establish how far the fears expressed by passengers were borne out in practice and how successful were the arrangements made by the Minister for alternative travel. The analysis of the results he did not expect until the beginning of this year. I do not think that that analysis, or any part of it, has been published. If it has, I must have missed it and I would apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and he can simply refer me to it. If not, I think that he may well wish to pray in aid these findings, supposing they are reassuring, since that particular experiment seems directly pertinent to the anxieties of my noble friend.
The Government spokesman told us, on that earlier occasion, that the Railways Board had paid in the previous year £80,000 in subsidies to bus companies, resulting from rail closures. He said that that £80,000 had saved the Railways Board £6 million. I wonder 185 whether the noble Lord, Lord Champion, can give us corresponding figures to-day. The Minister also described very lucidly the procedure that is gone through when proposals are submitted by the Railways Board for closure. If, in the Minister's view, they are non-starters, he—or, of course, to-day, she—returns them to the Railways Board immediately, thus avoiding the whole procedure with which my noble friend now finds fault. If the Minister does not reject the proposals at first sight, they go to the Transport Users' Consultative Committees to be considered on the basis of hardship, and also to the Regional Development Council, if there is one, to be examined on the basis of present and future plans for that region. In the light of the opinions and the information provided by the Committees and Regional Councils, the Minister makes her decision—a refusal or a consent.
The noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, said at this point, "If there is a refusal, everybody is happy." I can hardly believe that this is exactly so, as the Railways Board will not be notably happy to have their proposals rejected. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Champion, can tell us, from figures which he may have brought with him, how many proposals for closure are dismissed at the outset by the Minister, how many are dismissed after scrutiny by the Committees and further consideration by the Minister, and how many are ultimately approved. I imagine that the noble Lord will not have very precise or up-to-date figures under his hand, and I have not given him notice of this question, but some idea of the proportion might be a help and might even serve to comfort my noble friend in his desire that justice may be done and may be seen to be done.
By and large, I do not anticipate that there will be any great dispute between the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and myself if he confirms that his colleagues still see the future of the railways in the same way as we saw them—that is to say that the railways will cope with the fast, long haul of goods and passengers between areas of dense population, leaving the lorry and the bus to cope with the delivery from and collection to a railhead of passengers and goods in less populated areas. This was the 186 terminology, which I am repeating purposely, of the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, on the previous occasion. This seems to me not only logical but inevitable.
In closing, I must give my noble friend a second warning as to why he should not expect very much support to-day from the Government Front Bench, a reason apart from the illogical, inconsequential and random nature of Socialist Government. The noble Lord, Lord Champion, is in fact one of the Government's more logical members. He also made the only robust and commonsensical observation which I can remember from the Opposition of that day while these rail closures were being discussed in the time of the previous Administration. On July 25, 1963, he intervened pithily to say:There is one way of saving branch lines, and that is to use the darned things".That remains true to-day for me. I suspect that it remains true also for the noble Lord, Lord Champion. I hope that it will not be long before by noble friend is converted to our trans-cameral company.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
My Lords, contrary to the expectations of the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, and of Members on this side of the House, I rise to support the Bill. I am very sorry if I find myself at some difference with my noble friends on this matter. I think that the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, is to be congratulated on persevering with this kind of measure, and I feel that any action which can be taken to increase the powers of transport users' consultative committees should receive support from transport users in general—in other words, from the general public; because the consultative committees were, as I am informed, set up to serve the interests of the community. I think that it is fair to assume that there has been some slight softening in the attitude of the Ministry of Transport since the last Election, indicating a more sympathetic approach to the social aspects attaching to the railway service. Therefore, I hope that this Bill may receive the consideration which I feel it deserves.
Without wishing to be unduly critical of the function of the Railways Board, who are not here to defend themselves. I feel that there has been a good deal 187 of divergence between the way in which the Board's function has been pursued and the interests of the general public. Near, my home in Devonshire is a place called Sampford Peverell, and consideration is at present being given to accommodating here some of the so-called Greater London overspill. The Devon County Council recently have surrendered areas of Devon, including Torquay and its environments, and some areas adjacent to Plymouth, to provide new county boroughs, with the resultant loss of rates, and it is for this reason, among others, that the County Council made approaches to the Greater London Authority with a view to providing accommodation both at Sampford Peverell and near Barnstaple, in North Devon. The matter is, I think, receiving ministerial consideration at present and, of course, is the subject of much local controversy, as might well be expected from the inhabitants of the West Country.
As I was passing this area last Friday, I was interested to see a considerable gang of men, working with great industry and dispatch, pulling up and taking away the railway line to Sampford Peverell station. This line has been out of use for about two years, and, to say the least of it, it seems to me to illustrate a lack of co-ordination that after all this time there should now be any reason to take this somewhat drastic action, in view of possible future developments. We shall be told, of course, that this is a matter for the Railways Board—a reply which has consistently been given to noble Lords in your Lordships' House who have raised any questions relating to railway management or closures, regardless of which Party has been responsible for the Government.
Although I believe that some change in policy was announced in another place as recently as yesterday, it is my recollection that when the present Government first came into office in 1964 an agreement was reached with the Railways Board that no further railway lines were to be removed pending consideration of their future use. The current action of the Railways Board at Sampford Peverell, and at many other places, seems contrary to this agreement. I am beginning to wonder whether it is not so much a matter for the Railways Board as a matter of the 188 Railways Board. Who are they to decide to remove railway lines before it has been agreed whether or not a new town shall be provided at a particular site?
My criticism of the Bill—and I am sure the noble Earl will forgive me for saying so—is that it does not go far enough. I have always felt that the transport users' consultative committees have no teeth, and I feel that they ought to be provided with them. But, so far as the Bill goes, I will certainly give it my support, and I hope that your Lordships will grant it a Second Reading.
§ 5.43 p.m.
My Lords, I am not in favour of keeping wildly uneconomic railways open, but the difficulty is to find out what are wildly uneconomic railways. It is a well-know fact, as anybody who has had anything to do with railways knows, that it is difficult to put a cost on the operation of any particular piece of a railway. I think it is important that these transport users' consultative committees should have power to challenge figures put before them, in view of the fact that those figures are so difficult to arrive at and are so eminently challengeable.
Let me give your Lordships an example. If you are trying to evaluate, say, a branch line, and your railway accountant is told to make the costs as high as he can, he will probably charge the coach maintenance on that branch line at the same rate as he would on a main line, notwithstanding that the coach runs a much lower mileage during the year and does not wear out its doors half as quickly. He might put the full cost of station maintenance down, notwithstanding the fact that the station had to be closed and treated as a halt. He might take figures for main-line track maintenance and apply them to this particular line. He might depreciate the rails at a main-line rate, where trains are running every few minutes, whereas this branch line might have very few trains running a day. I have seen rails fifty or sixty years old on railways where they are very lightly trafficked, but on our main lines they have to be renewed much more often.
I do not say that points of this kind will not condemn a large number of the railways which the Board are seeking to close, but the transport users' consultative committees should have power to 189 argue the figures. Arising, also, from their power to argue the figures, they ought to have power to look into the question of running the railway in a lower category, either as a light railway or reducing the station halts, locking the points, et cetera, and running it as a form of tramway.
There is no question at all that although many of these lines are used only at certain times of the day, when they are being used they area far more convenient method of travel to the people who use them than the alternative, because at the rush hour, morning and evening, buses on the narrow roads of this country are a very slow method of locomotion, whereas these lines have no traffic in the way. That is the experience on the commuter feeder lines of Sussex, and the closing of one of the most important of these has added considerably to the time of the working day of all the commuters who used to use it. For that reason, for the power that my noble friend seeks to give to the transport users' consultative committees to argue on these particular points before the Railways Board, I would support his Bill, but not for the reason that I wish to keep uneconomic railways open.
§ 5.47 p.m.
§ LORD CHAMPION
My Lords, I am sure the whole House is grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for the way in which he has introduced his Bill this afternoon. He has done it with care and courtesy, and with arguments which must appeal to a number of Members of this House. I was also deeply interested in the typically lively and rumbustious speech of the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald. But I was grateful that he quoted me on only one passage, which I am always glad to have quoted, on this matter of railway closures: "If the public want to retain 'em, use' em". Do not expect these railways to remain open just in order that when your car breaks down, or it happens to be snowing and you cannot use the road, the railway will be there. The country simply cannot afford to continue on that basis, keeping many of these branch railway lines in being when, clearly, their purpose and use have ceased, except for these odd occasions.
But this is not the purpose of the Bill. Its purpose, as I understand it, is to try to give to the transport users' 190 consultative committees powers which they have not got at present. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, recognises that these committees perform a valuable function in reporting to the Minister on hardship, so he wishes to extend the scope of their duties. He wants to extend their duties so that they would sit and adjudicate, as it were, over the whole range of railway activities. This is a very wide proposal indeed. I must say that I sympathise with the noble Earl's motives, and I sympathise with the point of view of my noble friend Lord Addison, but I am opposed to the Bill that has been introduced this afternoon. In spite of its superficial attraction, we regard the Bill as misconceived. If we look at it more closely, it raises a welter of practical difficulties. Let me explain.
What are the functions and duties of the transport users' consultative committees as laid down by Parliament in the Act of 1962? And I am bound to say that I did not at that time hear the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, querying the soundness of the Act and what might flow from it. But he was not quite in a position to do that, because he was then a Minister.
§ LORD CHAMPION
What I am doing now is, to some extent, to speak in favour of something which the last Government did, although I shall eventually point out that that Act has certain faults which we shall have to remedy.
The functions and duties of the T.U.C.C.s are, first, that they are required to report to the Minister on the hardship which may result from a rail passenger closure. So their reports are a public safeguard and make sure that the Minister is fully informed on how many people will be affected by a closure, on how badly off these people might be, and to what extent alternative bus services might cater for their essential needs. It is vital to the man in the train that T.U.C.C.s should continue to do this job right and find out just how he, the man in the train, will be affected.
Secondly, T.U.C.C.s can make recommendations to the Central Transport Consultative Committee, who in turn can recommend to the Minister, if they think 191 that the quality of this or that existing railway service should be improved. They can make these recommendations in any circumstance which they feel justifies them—as a result of complaint from the travelling public, or after the Minister or the Railways Board has referred a problem to them, or because they themselves have looked into one and decided that certain deficiencies should be remedied. For example, if the Railways Board reduce the number of trains along any particular line, or calling at any particular station, the T.U.C.C. can report to the Minister if they think that the revised service does not fully meet users' needs. And they can do the same for freight services.
It seems to me that what some noble Lords may not have realised is that the Bill would enormously extend the matters which the T.U.C.C.s could examine. First, it would enable them to look into all aspects of a passenger closure, not just hardship. And secondly, it would enable them to examine in every detail any reduction in passenger services short of closure, and also any reduction or discontinuance of freight services which the Board have in mind before it takes place. In other words, every single timetable alteration which meant that there would be one passenger train fewer, every single solitary re-routing of a goods train by a different line, every urgent decision by the Board designed to modernise and speed up the rail transport of merchandise by concentrating depots and closing moribund stub-end lines to freight—all these could become the proper consideration of T.U.C.C.s before they took place. The Railways Board would in effect have to surrender their immediate control of their day-to-day operation, and indeed possibly details of their long-term planning. They could no longer be confident of retaining more than the semblance of independent management.
We must allow management to manage, subject of course to the Minister's safeguarding powers. The Minister has these, and acts upon the advice of several bodies, a subject to which I shall return a little later in my speech. It is easy for us who know anything at all about this to imagine the serious effect the Bill could have on the drive to transform Britain's passenger and freight services into a 192 system fit for its needs in 1966, 1976 or 1996. The progressive modernisation of the railways could be seriously jeopardised if any proposals by the Board to improve the system were exposed to the delays which are a natural consequence of having the matter in hand looked at by a separate body. If I were a railway manager trying to do an honest job, as they all do, for the railways, I should think it quite wrong to have such a body entering at the stage which is here suggested. It would destroy management and I cannot imagine anybody engaged in private industry who would welcome such a body at such a stage.
Past experience has not shown that this suggested extension of powers is necessary. Since the 1962 Transport Act was passed, the Minister has so far never needed to give the Railways Board a direction arising from inadequate services. Common sense has always prevailed before that stage was reached. Any difficulties that have arisen from reduced services have not called for ministerial action. So that there is no call for T.U.C.C.s to report to her before some of the reductions that I have mentioned take place. So at least I would suggest to the noble Earl that one effect of the Bill is both unnecessary and damaging.
But what of the section which would enable T.U.C.C.s to consider all aspects, including financial, of a rail passenger closure? As I said at the beginning, this may appear superficially attractive. But in practice the idea is misconceived. In the first place, T.U.C.C.s are not bodies of experts competent to pronounce on all aspects of a proposed closure. I hope that nobody will misconstrue these words. I am not casting any doubts on the way that T.U.C.C.s do their job. Her Majesty's Government are most grateful for the time which T.U.C.C. members voluntarily sacrifice, for the care and effort with which they carry out the duties which they have accepted, and for the sound common-sense reports on hardship which they send to my right honourable friend the Minister.
I understood the noble Earl to say that the reputation of the T.U.C.C.s has sunk low. We have no evidence of this. We have no evidence that there are reports that are not, as always, carefully compiled, intended to make sure that the Minister is advised on the aspect on which 193 they are competent to advise—namely, hardship. I still have confidence that these T.U.C.C.s carry out the function which has been laid upon them.
But T.U.C.C.s themselves would, I am sure, be the first to admit that they do not have the expertise to examine, say, the financial, or the planning or the highways aspects of a closure proposal. They are constituted to give the Minister the sensible advice she needs about hardship which ordinary men and women may suffer from a passenger closure. That is their job. They do it well. The 1962 Act recognised this and confined the T.U.C.C.s functions and duties to the task they could do well and with the authority of people who represent the interests of actual users of passenger services. It would not be profitable, it would not be wise, to ask them to do other jobs for which they arc not equipped.
Let me illustrate this. The noble Lord concentrated some part of his speech on giving the T.U.C.C.s power to consider financial aspects of a closure. But could a T.U.C.C. weigh effectively the financial case put forward by the Board for closure without being fully informed of every single piece of evidence involved? The key issue in any closure decision is whether the savings to be achieved outweigh the disadvantages. So any assessment by the T.U.C.C.s of a closure proposal as a whole—as distinct from the assessment of hardship involved—would be meaningless without an appraisal of every single aspect. But the system of expert advice which my right honourable friend already receives reflects the simple fact that the bodies most competent to advise are different on different aspects of a passenger closure proposal. The noble Lord, Lord Hawke, cast some doubt upon the Board's honesty and integrity in presenting the figures to these T.U.C.C.s.
My Lords, I did not cast any doubt about their honesty and integrity. I merely said there are many different ways of approaching these figures and the Committee should be entitled to know by which method they have been arrived at.
§ LORD CHAMPION
Surely the noble Lord did say that they presented their figures in such a way as to mislead the T.U.C.C.s. If he did not say that, clearly I do not understand what he was getting 194 at. The Minister in the Conservative Government, Mr. Ernest Marples, himself had some doubts about the material that was presented, or at least he felt that the feeling about this was so strong that he ought to do something about it, and he referred this whole matter of the presentation of this financial aspect to the T.U.C.C.s, to Sir William Carrington, who is a member of an independent firm; and his report was of such a nature that it certainly satisfied me, and so far as I can tell completely satisfied Mr. Marples when he was Minister of Transport. Whatever I might think of Mr. Marples, of this I am absolutely positive, it was never easy to pull the wool over his eyes in transport matters.
§ LORD CHAMPION
I expected the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, to say, "Hear, hear!" I am glad he rose to my little bait, the fly I cast over his nose. As I have already said, the system of expert advice that my right honourable friend already receives reflects the simple fact that the bodies most competent to advise are different on different aspects of a passenger closure proposal. For example, she is advised on planning implications by the regional Economic Planning Councils; this to some extent answers the point of my noble friend Lord Addison. So here is advice on what these planning councils think may happen in the future, and advice on the wisdom or otherwise of doing something about rail closures. That is one aspect.
The Board of Trade advises about the effect on trade, industry and commerce; the Ministry of Labour about the effect on employment. The Minister's own divisional road engineers provide an expert assessment of the extra traffic that a closure will put on to the roads, whether roads will have to be widened, how much it will cost, how far displaced rail passengers transferring to bus will be delayed by congestion. All this is in addition to the advice on hardship which she receives from the T.U.C.C.s.
LORD ST. OSWALD
My Lords, may I ask one minor question in parenthesis? The noble Lord says, for instance, that advice is taken on what changes may be required in road engineering upon a rail closure, but I do not think the rail 195 closure is necessarily held up until that piece of road engineering is effective, is it?
§ LORD CHAMPION
No. What the Minister has to do is to take all this information into consideration. Quite clearly, if strain would be placed upon the road as a result of closure, in the view of the divisional road engineers, then in taking her decision she would have to consider the presentation they had made of the possible facts and its consequences. The inference here, it seems to me, is inescapable. The responsibility for making the total assessment of a closure proposal can rest only with my right honourable friend the Minister. Only she is in a position to make a balanced decision in the light of all the information supplied by all those bodies I have mentioned.
It would serve no good purpose, quite the contrary, to empower T.U.C.C.s to consider each proposal in all its aspects. It the T.U.C.C.s are going to consider it in all its aspects, all these bodies I have mentioned must give this advice to the T.U.C.C.s, and eventually when the Minister takes her decision under the 1962 Act she then has to consider all this afresh, and in some cases she might have to consider it in the light of what has been presented at head office, as against, for example, what the local engineer might have suggested so far as roads are concerned. The responsibility must rest with the Minister. As I say, only she is in a position to give a balanced decision. This must be the job of the Minister, who is responsible for her every decision to Parliament, and this is right. She can be questioned on what she does in this connection. She has a responsibility to Parliament, and Members of Parliament can of course question her every act in connection with these matters for which she is responsible.
So far I have described how Her Majesty's Government view this Bill. But it is also worth reflecting on how the T.U.C.C.s themselves would view it. Naturally, I cannot speak for them, but it seems to me to be significant that some time ago the T.U.C.C.s themselves recognised the danger of their being dragged into fields of discussion in which they were not in a position to express sound 196 views. I believe this is important. This is a practical point of very real moment and I think weighs very heavily against the Bill which the noble Lord has recommended to us to-day.
Of course, Her Majesty's Government are opposed to this Bill, but not for any Party political reasons, although, of course, this Bill was introduced by the Party opposite when they were in power. But the present Government have examined the 1962 Act critically and found some faults, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, will not have to wait too long before he hears what is the result of the examination of faults we have found in the 1962 Act. Undoubtedly, when we present the White Paper, which will not be too long delayed, I shall have the tremendous advantage of his advice and wisdom in this connection.
The White Paper will be a diagnosis of the faults we have found, and we shall propose their cure. But Her Majesty's Government are satisfied that the provisions relating to T.U.C.C.s would not be improved by this Bill. It could, and might well, delay and damage the railway modernisation that we so urgently need. It would place a heavy burden of work on T.U.C.C.s in fields for which they are not constituted. Finally, it is, I repeat, only the Minister herself who can take the decision on closure. She alone is in a position to weigh up all the facts, financial facts included, and cannot delegate her statutory responsibility to another body. I respect the noble Lord's motives for introducing this Bill, but I shall eventually have to advise your Lordships that Her Majesty's Government consider that it is at best unnecessary, and at worst would block railway progress.
We have had an interesting debate. Matters have been aired which the Government will reflect upon seriously. I think I may fairly say that what has prompted the noble Earl to introduce his Bill is not far removed from Her Majesty's Government's own intentions in preparing and launching a policy for maximising the transport potential of this country—namely, that we should make the best use of our transport resources and ensure that, where changes are proposed, the best and most informed decisions are taken. I can assure your 197 Lordships that the Government are determined that any significant changes in our railway services will be consistent to this end.
I think I must just say a word about the point made by my noble friend Lord Addison concerning the taking up of lines. My right honourable friend yesterday announced in another place the policy that she has adopted for the disposal of redundant assets on closed lines. I can well understand why my noble friend has some doubt about this. But I want to make it quite clear that I think that, once the decision has been taken, assets on lines which are closed should be sold as quickly as possible. The rails should be taken up as soon as possible, and the signalling and other equipment should be sold as soon as possible because, if it is not, we can expect the rails to be stolen or destroyed by vandalism. I am sure that my noble friend knows of many signal boxes and so on that have been pretty well destroyed by vandals, and of signalling equipment being stolen almost as soon as there is no one working on the lines to keep an eye on it.
§ VISCOUNT ADDISON
My Lords, if I might interrupt, there is certainly the question of what is going to be used in the way of equipment in the future if the line is going to be needed again later. It should not be put up for sale in those circumstances.
§ LORD CHAMPION
My Lords, this is what I was coming on to. What are the safeguards in this connection? Previously, by arrangement, the Board have had to apply to the Minister for permission to dispose of the track, signalling apparatus, station buildings, et cetera, on a closed line. The point of this control was to make sure that no disposal would take place which might prejudice the restoration of rail services in the future, should that ever become necessary as a result of long-term planning decisions. In other words, the arrangement is a safeguard in the interests of the planned transport system of the future.
My right honourable friend has now decided that the safeguard can be made completely effective without the need to secure her approval for disposing of the actual track of the closed line or of station buildings. The essence of the safeguard is control over disposal of the for- 198 mation of the line—that is, the land on which the actual track is laid—and the sites of the stations and accesses to them, as distinct from the buildings occupying the sites.
If in the future, having retained the sites, having retained the land upon which the track would have to run, it is found that it is necessary in a process of development again to open a line there, it will be comparatively easy to lay that track and to re-signal it—as re-signal it you would have to, judging by the way much of the equipment attached to and used in signal boxes, and so on, is stolen. The important thing is not to allow free disposal without sanction of the bed of either. And the Minister will in future consult the Economic Planning Council concerned before deciding each application. Meantime, the Board can go ahead and capitalise on redundant track, and so on, the sale of which brought them in £2 million in 1965—no inconsiderable figure, despite the size of the deficit at which the railways are running. The same sort of principle is at work in the closure procedure itself. What we want is efficient, smooth machinery directed at practical ends without unnecessary encumbrances. This is wholly to the benefit of the railways, the users and the taxpayers generally.
My Lords, on the assurances that I have given, and for the special reasons that I have detailed, I appeal to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, not to ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading to-day. If he does decide to proceed to a vote, I strongly advise your Lordships not to give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF KINNOULL
My Lords, in exercising my right of reply, I feel that possibly this short debate has gone a good deal outside the purposes of the Bill. One of the criticisms which the noble Lord, Lord Champion, raised—the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, raised it as well—was that this Bill would cause delay to railway progress, that it would block railway progress. In fact, all that this Bill seeks is that at these hearings a fair hearing should be given to both sides. I personally cannot think that this Bill can delay railway progress in any way. As these hearings have been likened to planning appeals, with which I am occasionally concerned, I would say 199 they are absolutely parallel, until we get to the T.U.C.C. hearing, when one side is allowed to produce a case which cannot be questioned by the other side. This we seek to change.
I think that Lord Champion's reply is most disappointing. There has been a complete turn-round by members of the Government since they were in Opposition. I could quote many of their previous sayings in 1963 and in 1964; even the powerful Chief Whip supported this point. I think that I must urge the
§ Resolved in the negative, and Motion for Second Reading disagreed to accordingly.